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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Game Profile
PlayStation 2
December 12, 2001
Shadow Hearts: From the New World

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

 Written by John Scalzo  on February 19, 2002

Full Review: In my weeklong quest to think of something witty to put here, I couldn't come up with anything that wasn't clich?. That's kinda fitting.

Shadow Hearts is a hard game to categorize. There are moments of pure fun and then there are moments where the action grinds to a halt under a pile of RPG clich?s.

It is 1913 and you're in China, where an RPG is about to start. You know it's an RPG as a young girl is on a train being chased by a creepy old man. You soon learn this young girl is Alice, a young girl with powers she doesn't understand (RPG Clich? #1). You also learn that the old man is a powerful wizard who is trying to suck the world into a hell dimension (RPG Clich? #2). But wait, a young man has secretly entered the train a self-absorbed loner with a trench coat named Yuri (RPG Clich?s #3, 4, 5). He has a mystical connection to The Powers That Be, which make him hear voices (RPG Clich? #6). One day he hopes these voices will lead him to his missing parents (RPG Clich? #7), but right now he's content with being a pissed off loner. There is a battle between our young hero and the evil wizard, which our hero is destined to lose (RPG Clich? #8, 9). Though before the evil wizard can land the killing blow our hero escapes with the young girl (RPG Clich? #10). From these humble beginnings our hero forgoes his formally solitary life and pledges to protect the young girl (RPG Clich? #11). They also learn that the evil wizard's actions in opening the hell dimension are unleashing monsters onto the world (RPG Clich? #12). So our epic quest begins.

The names may have changed, but that paragraph could be the opening to dozens of RPGs. This is one of Shadow Hearts greatest weaknesses. There is a lot of interesting stuff here, however, it's so bogged down in all these clich? RPG moments, it's really hurt. Biggest among Shadow Hearts semi-unique features is its battle system. The battle system hinges on the Judgment Ring (or as I like to call it, the wheel of ass kicking). The Judgment Ring is used whenever you use a spell, attack a monster, use an item or take part in a game of chance. An indicator sweeps around the ring and if you stop it on the colored areas, you score a hit. On the edges of the colored areas are brighter areas that if you stop it on them you score even bigger hits. If you miss the colored areas though, you miss. No guts, no glory.

This system really brings out the usefulness of in battle power-ups. They actually have a tangible effect on the ring. Instead of just saying that Agility is up 2 points or something equally meaningless in the grand scheme of things, Shadow Hearts affect the ring. The indicator could move slower, could move faster, could make the colored areas bigger. It definitely adds another layer to the game and I like the way the Judgment Ring was implemented. This system is very good, but there's not a whole lot of strategy to it. Our hero, Yuri, is a Harmonixer. He can fuse into monsters and use their powers to kick ass more effectively. This really hurts the strategy to the game. When you reach a boss fight, the only thing you have to do is attack with all your strongest attacks. None of the battles are all that difficult, and with such a cool battle system it's really a shame it's not used for strategic fighting better.

Another of Shadow Hearts cool features is the Sanity Meter. The longer you battle, the more Sanity Points you lose. When a character drops down to zero, they go berserk. When a character goes berserk, you lose control of that character. They just start performing totally random moves. A very cool feature that makes a lot of sense to me. I'd be freakin' out too if I had to fight a giant fish mutant, among other things. Finally, Shadow Hearts make's it's hero accountable for the bloody swath he's cut through the monsters of the world. To atone for killing all these monsters you must release the Malice of their spirits from your heart by traveling to the Graveyard. No this doesn't mean you'll be backtracking the entire game, this is a Graveyard in your mind. So whenever your Malice meter is looking a little red, you'll have to go to that Graveyard in your mind. Pop psychology at it's cheesiest and it's pretty boring in the game too. Even though you don't have to walk to the Graveyard, you just select it from the pause menu, it's still tedious and not needed.

Shadow Hearts leads you through this world of fighting in a Resident Evil styled world of pre-rendered backgrounds and a lot of dialogue pages. The backgrounds look decent, nothing spectacular, and actually, more often than not some key part of the background will be lost in the blurry textures used throughout the game. They look decent enough, but everything seems at a distance and like I said, the details are lost in a blurry haze that bleeds much of the environments into the background. These backgrounds are made worse by the fact that the areas are kept very small. There's no more than four pre-rendered screens per area at a time, so you won't be doing a whole lot of exploring. What fares better though are the character models and the monster battles. The characters all have their own little quirks that are on full display throughout Shadow Hearts many moments of dialogue and the less than frequent battles. For example, Alice was obviously patterned after Alice in Wonderland and at all times she has her book. She even uses the book during battle as a weapon, literally beating enemies over the head with her Bible. That's right Alice, convert the heathens! The animations of the fight are not only crisp for Alice, but all of characters. The spells are all given nice graphical cut scenes and the monsters appear quite menacing with their polygonal selves. Shadow Hearts also plays off of its turn of the century time period. It has that Indiana Jones feel to it as your motley group battles the forces of evil. Although I don't remember Indy carrying around a computer and a cell phone like a certain spy character you meet does. I'm not even going to go into the B-movie porn star wardrobe all the women sport. Let's just say it's unique, if not entirely fitting of 1913 China.

These battles are given the perfect accompaniment with the game's soundtrack. Moody, atmospheric music when the game calls for it, and it calls for it a lot. Then a rousing battle anthem when it's time to fight the baddies. Shadow Hearts has a truly distinct soundtrack that I think is near perfect. Of course, this is a complete 180 from the game's voice acting. Simply put, it sucks. Some of the game has been translated into English, but a lot of the battle cries are still in Japanese, it's a little weird. And then there are the extended storytelling sequences that use some really terrible voice acting. The spoken dialogue is downright funny. Jerry Seinfeld's got nothing on the Sea Mother. Listening to her describe the sounds of the monster is better than your average Britney Spears movie for shear comic value.

All this talking is the ultimate downfall of Shadow Hearts. There's just too much talking (what Shadow Hearts does bad) and not enough fighting (what Shadow Hearts does good). Pages and pages of cheeseball dialogue that is terrible, filed with bad innuendos, repetitive dialogue, and more than a few times that make you go, "what the hell were they smoking?" When Shadow Hearts isn't being totally corny with it's dialogue, it's being incredibly predictable. All of the dialogue seems to be there to pad a relatively short game. Shadow Hearts is more or less a linear game, once you clear an area, you have no need to go back. This is a nice change of pace from all those RPGs that pop you into an adventure with no idea where to go, this was a nice change of pace. Which all leads back to the next set of seemingly never ending dialogue.

Bottom Line
Shadow Hearts has lots of things going for it. The problem comes from the fact that what is a good game on the surface is bogged down with a clich?d plot, less than strategic battles, and terrible dialogue. A lot of terrible dialogue. I really like the battle system and Shadow Hearts definitely has a style that could fuel a game. If only the developer Sacnoth could take those things and place them in a game that doesn't drive me crazy after a while. It's good, don't get me wrong, there's just this nagging feeling it could be a lot better.

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